The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Monsanto and its patented seeds last Monday by throwing out a case tirelessly petitioned for by organic farmers. That decision dealt yet another blow to the small-scale agricultural community—it was only last month that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the agricultural giant’s “license agreement” yet again.(Photo: Tineke D'haese for Via Campesina)
But Via Campesina, the global agrarian movement made up of more than 200 million peasants in 80 countries, is not ceding to big agriculture. This week, Via Campesina held its VI International Organizing Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, reaffirming its fundamental commitment to seed sovereignty.
With the Green Revolution came a promise to end hunger through so-called miracle seeds. Instead, it ushered in seed property rights, domination and even criminalization of small-scale farmers, and waves of transnational corporate control of agriculture. Under “Monsanto Laws,” more specifically known as UPOV 91, patents prohibit farm-saved seeds and peasant seeds for which multinational corporations have filed patents. UPOV 91 works hand-in-glove with the Plant Variety Protection Act that asserted heritage seeds counterfeit to standardized industrial varieties.
These policies, adopted by one country after another, routinely displace peasants in the Global South and wreak havoc on the environment. In the Global North, native seeds have nearly reached extinction while hybrid (and often chemical GMO) varieties take their place.
“After 30 to 40 years of the Green Revolution, we’ve lost our seeds,” said Guy Kastler, a small-scale farmer from France. Kastler explained that he and other agricultural activists from Europe traveled to Latin America, Asia, and Africa to find and learn about peasant seeds. Those learning exchanges led Via Campesina to launch its Seed Campaign in 2001, through which it advocates the recovery, protection, and preservation of peasant seeds in each of its geographic regions—with a specific focus on those hardest hit by corporate seed policy.
Chile—a laboratory for neoliberalism—has churned out some of the worst agricultural policies in Latin America. Francisca “Pancha” Rodriguez defied Pinochet’s unmerciful military regime, literally carrying indigenous seeds in the folds of her skirts across international borders where they could be safely stored while her husband fought on the revolutionary frontlines. Today Pancha plays an integral role in Via Campesina’s Seed Campaign through the National Association of Indigenous and Rural Women (ANAMURI). She has trained countless women at home and across the world. “Locally, we understood what would happen if people lost their seeds,” Pancha offered, “But this is not only our battle. It is a universal struggle that we are turning into a rural revolution.”
Chukki Nanjundaswamy, a farmer who is part of Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS), explained that when Green Revolution technology hit India in the ‘60s peasants lost seeds because they were told to use modified high-yield varieties. “At first the companies offered free packets, but then they started charging,” she said. “High-yield seeds don’t grow in the rain-fed regions where sixty percent of Indian farmers work.” Through KRRS and Via Campesina, Nanjundaswamy breeds natural seeds on her own farm, sets up community seed banks with local activists, and advocates Agroecology through zero-budget natural farming.
“Seeds are life,” Nelson Mudzingwa, a farmer from Zimbabwe, passionately explained. “Without seeds there is no food, and without food there is no life.” Nelson’s local grassroots movement, Zimbabwe Small Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), was only ratified as a Via Campesina member organization this week—but its advocacy around seeds has been more than a decade in the making. In fact, Nelson himself has been saving heirloom seeds ever since he can remember, and said that it is at the heart of agricultural tradition passed down from his forefathers. “On my farm, not even a single grain grows from outside my fence,” he proudly added.
One of the main events at Via Campesina’s gathering this week was an outdoor Agroecology fair where farmers exchanged experience and practices. That learning opportunity closed with a ceremony in which farmers exchanged their indigenous seeds from five continents. Peasant activists throughout the movement, working on complex interrelated issues—from land grabs to climate change to migration—agree that it all starts with control of their seeds.
Salena Tramel is a journalist and international policy and development consultant.